"I visit the States three or four times a year, and watching the television news in hotel rooms in the last three years has been like witnessing a time-lapse study of emasculation," writes Henry Porter, the London editor of Vanity Fair magazine, in his ruminations about the unmasking of FBI official Mark Felt as "Deep Throat," the Watergate whistleblower.
"It's not just the unbearable lightness of purpose in most news shows; it's the sense that everyone is rather too mindful of the backstairs influence of the White House in companies such as Viacom and News Corporation that own the TV news," Porter writes, adding, "The result of this climate of fear and caution is that few Americans have any idea of the circumstances in which 1,600 of their countrymen have lost their lives in Iraq, the hideous injuries suffered by both Iraqi and American victims of suicide bombers, or even the profound responsibility that lies with Rumsfeld for mishandling practically every facet of the occupation. The mission to explain has been replaced by the mission to avoid. If today there was a whistleblower as well-placed, heroically brave and strategic as Mark Felt, one wonders whether he would now find the outlet that Felt did at the Washington Post between 1972 and 1974."
Porter is not alone, of course, in expressing concern about the depths of mediocrity to which journalism has descended. Bob Cauthorn, the former head of the San Francisco Chronicle's new-media division, recently gave a lengthy, scathing speech at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism in which he declared that the daily newspaper is "a product that is going out business" because "the product is broken." Circulation figures are dropping rapidly, he said, because "People don't like the product. ... They're rejecting the manifest irrelevance, the manifest stupidity, and the manifest arrogance of the mainstream press. ... There's not a newsroom in America that genuinely cares about being fucking relevant."
The problem is not limited to newspapers. It's happening in television too. And it's not limited to the United States alone. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, recently delivered a sermon about the state of journalism in the UK, in which he declared that "some aspects of current practice are lethally damaging to it, and contribute to the embarrassingly low level of trust in the profession ... shown in most opinion polls." The most dangerous thing about bad journalism, of course, is that it deprives citizens of the quality information that they need to participate meaningfully in public debate and communication. Bad journalism is bad for democracy.
Running counter to this trend, there is a growing citizen journalism movement that is broadening the ranks of reporters and bringing in new voices that are more diverse and harder to tame than companies like Viacom or Disney. One of the most successful examples, South Korea's OhMyNews, has played an important role in transforming the country's traditionally conservative, corrupt political system. It has also become a commercial success and has grown to include an English-language international edition.
As the archbishop observed in his sermon, internet-powered citizen journalism has the potential to undermine some of the "near-monopolistic practices" and "control of the product" now found in the traditional media, but it has some problems of its own: "Unwelcome truth and necessary and prompt rebuttal are characteristic of the web-based media. So are paranoid fantasy, self-indulgent nonsense and dangerous bigotry. The atmosphere is close to that of unpoliced conversation -- which tends to suggest that the very idea of an appropriate professionalism for journalists begins to dissolve."
Steve Outing has been writing a lot about citizen journalism. In a recent piece for Editor and Publisher magazine, titled "New Desk in the Newsroom: The Citizen Editor," he describes some of the citizen journalism initiatives that are "popping up all over the place" on websites such as GoSkokie.com; YourHub.com in the Denver, Colorado area; BaristaNet in Montclair, New Jersey; MyMissourian.com; or BackFence.com for Virginia suburbs near Washington, DC.
Like OhMyNews, some of these sites are using a mixture of traditional, professional journalists and citizen reporters to gather and write the news. Outing says the results thus far are largely positive:
Another misconception about citizen editing is that the content you'll get to work with will be mostly dreck. But Backfence.com's experience is contrary to that notion. "The content we've received [so far] is better than what you'd expect," says Potts. Non-journalists "can write," he says -- "not in the classic journalism style, but it is readable, and it's not written in third-grade language."
In other words, get rid of the old thinking that only trained journalists can tell stories. Accept the notion that people at the grassroots level have lots to communicate and offer, and help them do that. Then you will be a competent citizen editor.
Many of the citizen journalism efforts that are popping up right now are examples of "hyperlocalism" such as H2otown in Watertown, Massachusetts: small-scale projects that cover local news that is simply being ignored by area newspapers and TV stations because it isn't considered "newsworthy" (and because downsizing has eliminated the reporters who used to cover a lot of local stories). H2otown founder Lisa Williams has posted a fun little video in which she explains what inspired her to create it:
"One night, not too long ago, we were lying in bed, and we had turned all the lights off, and there was this huge, loud explosion noise. The next morning, I flipped on the TV and made a point of watching the local newscast. Nope, nothing. A few days later, the local paper came out. Nothing there either. And the Globe and the Herald, well, I'm not sure that they know we're alive. And I thought to myself, 'Why is it so much easier to find out what's going on in Indonesia than in the East End?'"
Actually, they're doing a pretty sucky job of informing us about Indonesia too, but Williams' main point is well taken. Newspapers used to provide what Bob Cauthorn described in his speech as the "connective tissue" in a community - the threads of information through which people found out what was happening in their towns and neighborhoods. The downsizing of newsroom staffs has undermined local reporting even more dramatically than it has undermined journalism at the national and international levels. People like Lisa Williams are starting up sites like H2otown to fill the gap, "so next time some hits a pole and shuts a transformer and takes out the power ... we'll know what happened."
Outing thinks that "small independent initiatives like this will drive the citizen-journalism movement for a while. What's scary to mainstream news companies -- losing control of the editorial product to a citizenry that can write whatever they want -- is simply a fun project for a motivated town resident."
Efforts are also beginning to offer training to citizen journalists, such as seminars that are being offered by the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado. Seminar participants "learn how to spread news of interest about their group, event, meeting, fund-raiser and such; promote classes, activities, lectures, camps, sports leagues; and create their own blog." Elsewhere, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has put together a legal guide for bloggers, with advice on topics such as libel, privacy, intellectual property laws and reporter's privilege when using information from confidential sources.
Most local journalism thus far has focused on soft stories about topics such as local sports events, weddings or school plays, but there is no reason in principle why they can't also begin the fulfill the journalistic function of "speaking truth to power." We're still a ways away from the point at which citizen journalism presents a serious challenge to the dominance of traditional broadcast media, but lots of people are working on it. Serious ventures are underway, and for the most part I think things are headed in the right direction. When the next "Deep Throat" whistleblower wants to expose government corruption, maybe he or she won't need the Washington Post or 60 Minutes to get the word out. In their place, we'll have a a network of citizen journalists to tell the story.